Death is our only certainty in life. “That he not busy being born is busy dying,” says Bob Dylan. Some of us though, are more haunted by the specter of Death than others. Hubert Selby Jr seemed to be born dying in the most literal sense. Sickness, addiction, surgeries, incarcerations, poverty, divorces. Selby, or Cubby, as he was affectionately known to friends, fought and survived through tragedy after tragedy. As a teenager, he joined the merchant marines after working on the docks. While at sea, he contracted bovine tuberculosis. This led to years of hospitalizations. Several ribs had to be surgically removed to reach his lungs, one of which he completely lost, and then had a chunk of the other removed. The doctors didn’t expect him to survive the year. There was an experimental treatment that led to other health issues, including arthritis in both hands and he was still in his early twenties. The doctors gave him morphine for the pain, and that led to addiction. Unable to hold any real job, a friend suggested he try writing fiction. So, he wrote his first short story, “The Queen is Dead,” a queer tragedy written with a near primal scream that flowed like poetry while eschewing the rules of fiction writing, like using apostrophes or quotation marks, or even properly identifying which speaker is speaking. He followed that story with “Tralala,” about a prostitute of the same name, that ends with horrific gang rape. The Provence Town Review published “Tralala,” and that got the editor of the journal arrested for distributing pornography to a minor, which led to an obscenity trial. These two stories were amazingly graphic and controversial for the time period, the late 1950s, almost a literary punk rock compared even to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer or the hard crime fiction of Jim Thompson. Based on these two works, Selby’s friend and poet/playwright, Amiri Baraka, introduced Selby to Jack Kerouac’s literary agent. What followed was the birth of one of America’s most controversial and significant novels ever written.
Last Exit to Brooklyn took “The Queen is Dead” and “Tralala” and added four more stories that all loosely connected to tell a bleak modernist tale of a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood in the throes of a major workers strike, populated by roving toughs, prostitutes, and homosexuals. Selby pulled from his own childhood for inspiration, painfully typing away every night for years, using the forward-slash (/) mark instead of an apostrophe, because the key was closer and thus made the writing flow faster, he ignored the quotation marks for the same reason. The novel came out in 1964, the same year as William Burroughs’ seminal work, Naked Lunch. Both books were as influential as they were problematic for their graphic depictions of sex and violence, running afoul of the law, and ultimately beating obscenity trials and bans, paving the way for multiple generations of transgressive novelists.
Allen Ginsburg championed the novel, famously proclaimed it would “explode like a rusty hellish bomb over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years.” Lou Reed wrote the classic Velvet Underground song “Sister Ray” based on “The Queen is Dead.” Bowie claimed the book, along with Kerouac’s On the Road, were massive influences on his life. More praise came from many corners of various literary circles, but none of that calmed the storm in Hubert Selby’s soul.
The next several years saw marriages and divorces and moving back and forth from New York to LA. Selby’s follow up novel, The Room, was such a horrific and bleak narrative, that Selby himself couldn’t even revisit the work for years. The Room is like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, but more sociopathic and twisted-completely taking place in the mind of a criminally insane man, locked in a prison cell, wallowing in painful memories and vile fantasies. It’s a harrowing read to be sure, but I don’t think I’m being unfair when I call it a lesser novel, compared to the rest of Selby’s body of work. Important and well-crafted, to be sure, but it lacks the heart and humanity that exists in most of Selby’s other books and short stories. Last Exit made have been bleak as hell, but it had touches of beauty and hope as well. Its what makes the book so important, Selby’s ability to empathize with the “dregs of society” and show their worth and humanity. That they aren’t disposable and are deserving of love and redemption. The Room, by contrast, is pure nihilism, but clearly something Selby needed to exorcise from his soul. And speaking of exorcism…
On the Henry and Heidi Podcast, poet/writer/musician Henry Rollins went into detail about his friendship with Selby and I would say it’s a vitally important episode if you care about Selby’s work, because Rollins gets into some great stories about their first meeting, budding friendship, travels together, and finally Selby’s funeral. One of the craziest stories he told, was about how Selby used to administer exorcisms to himself and even slam his head into the wall to knock himself out. Compare this to the frail and sickly, but kindly, gentle soul that many of his friends spoke so highly of. Selby was like the living embodiment of Jungian’s “Shadow self.” Philosopher Carl Jung theorized that man had a dark side, “the Shadow is composed of hidden aspects of an individual’s personality that are deemed as “unacceptable,” and tucked away into the hidden parts of their mind.” (Carl Jung and the Shadow: A Guide to the Dark Side of the Mind) Selby had a sharp tongue and moments of insanity, and a world of pain. It’s unimaginable what would have become of him had he not had literature to bare his soul and unburden his tortured mind and body.
The Demon followed The Room, five years later, in 1976. In a way, it’s the inverse of The Room, because the main character, Harry, is a somewhat successful bachelor, a businessman, totally free in New York City to live out his fantasies, some sexual, some little crimes, things that he pursues like a junky seeking the next high, but like a junky, the next high is never as good as the previous, and he continues to seek out more and more levels of fucked up behavior to satisfy the gnawing hunger in his gut. The Demon is practically a precursor to American Psycho and Brett Easton Ellis certainly owes Selby a debt to his success. The Demon is an emotional spiral into the depths of man’s humanity or lack of. I remember being less than a hundred pages from the end wondering where the hell could it possibly go from here…I finished reading the last fifty pages in a fever, closed the book with my hands shaking, feeling completely gutted and not wanting to be alone with myself. I had a really hard time writing for months after that book. It destroyed me, made me question everything I was doing and forced me to rebuild myself from the ground up. Rollins said the book burned a hole in his soul and that’s the best description there is.
Selby’s next work came much faster, a mere two years later, and thanks to the indie hit film adaptation from Darren Aronofsky in 2000, might be Selby’s most popular work after Last Exit. Requiem for a Dream is just that, the mourning of a dream birthed between two friends who tried to reach for such great heights, only to find themselves tumbling into the hell of addiction and pulling down those they loved with them along the way. Pulling from his own struggles with morphine addiction, the book is about two heroin junkies who try to get straight, not to go straight, but to be the ones on the top. They’re out to buy a pound of pure heroin and go into business for themselves, so they never have to hustle again, but like so many of Selby’s characters before, they find that the universe has endless ways of punching you in the balls and taking all your shit.
It would take twenty years before we would get another novel from Selby, in that time he taught creative writing at the University of Southern California and became friends with Henry Rollins. Rollins started taking Selby out on spoken word tours and distributed his novels and 1986 short story collection, Song of the Silent Snow, through his 2.13.61 Publications. Selby also got some of his performances recorded. Lydia Lunch released a double spoken CD with Selby, Rollins, Don Bajema, and herself through her Widow Speak Records, called Our Fathers Who Aren’t in Heaven, in 1990. 2.13.61 released Live in Europe 1989, in 1995. Then at long last, in 1998 the novel The Willow Tree came out.
The Willow Tree is a story about love, vengeance, friendship and forgiveness. It’s about a Black teenage boy and a Hispanic teenage girl, whose love raises the ire of a local Hispanic gang who nearly beat the boy to death and badly blind and disfigure the girl. The boy is saved and nursed back to health by a homeless holocaust survivor, who teaches the boy about survival and finding the strength of those who have wronged him. The book is as beautiful and moving as Requiem is damaged and disturbing.
Before succumbing to pulmonary disease in 2004, Selby got to write the screenplay for Requiem for a Dream, and even play a bit part as a prison guard opposite of Marlon Wayans, who starred alongside Jared Leto and Jennifer Connolly. Director Aronofsky was fresh off his indie hit Pi and pulled off the rare feat of crafting a film adaptation that was every bit as powerful as the novel. He nailed Selby’s ability to escalate the tension to the point of creating horror out of true-to-life tragedy. Requiem, though, wasn’t the only adaptation of Selby’s work.
In 1989, Uli Edel brought Last Exit to the big screen years after Ralph Bakshi failed to get his version completed. Edel put together an amazing ensemble cast that included Stephen Lang, Alexis Arquette, Riki Lake, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stephen Baldwin, Jerry Orbach, Sam Rockwell, and Mark Boone Jr. It’s a gorgeously made film, that’s heartbreaking and hardcore, even if it really pulls its punches as far the book’s contents go.
The final novel of Selby’s life arrived in 2002. Waiting Period is about a suicidal man who goes to buy a gun to end it all, but during the waiting period, he changes his mind and instead goes on a killing spree of people he thinks deserves to die. The book is currently sitting on my shelf. Unread. All these years and I keep putting off reading the last Hubert Selby book. I guess I’m just saving it because once I read it, that’s it. I’m not like that with any other writer or filmmaker. Not many writers have laid me out on my ass the way Selby did. For me, he was the finest writer I’ve ever read, no one could touch him, not Dostoyevsky, Joyce, or Miller. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anyone that balanced rage with grace. The man was shaking hands with death most of his life and still hung in there for seventy-five years. He left an indelible mark on everyone who knew him and left behind a towering literary legacy. In 2005, directors Michael Dean and Ken Shiffrin released the documentary It/ll Be Better Tomorrow. Narrated by Robert Downey Jr, the doc features interviews with Ellen Burstyn, Henry Rollins, Nick Tosches and many others discussing Selby’s life and work, but most importantly, we hear from the man himself. I can’t recommend the film enough because Selby lived an astounding life.